By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010; F07
For my night at Spa World, I over-packed by two items: a bathing suit and my modesty.
Set in a strip mall in Centreville, the Asian-style wellness center soothes the mind and body with pulsating baths, desert-hot saunas, massages, scrubs and mani-pedi nail polish in pastel rainbow shades. The spa also frees guests of superfluous baggage that can clog the qi, or energy flow. In my case, it was a flowery bikini and a load of self-consciousness.
Unlike typical R&R venues in the United States, Spa World stages private activities (e.g., nude bathing, body rubs by a masseuse in black lingerie, sleeping) in a public forum and is open around the clock. For $35, guests can untangle the knots in their shoulders and their psyches no matter the hour.
"This is not a hotel facility, but it becomes a sleepover," said one customer, a Korean-born acupuncturist who divides his time between Boston and Virginia. "People come here for the baths, restaurant and Korean-style beds. They end up staying long enough to take a nap, which becomes sleep."
To accommodate folks with deep issues in their tissues, the spa provides communal crash pads in two areas: a spacious, stadium-lit common room for coeds, and dark cocooned quarters for same-sex snoozers. The sleeping gear hews to the aesthetic of Asian minimalism.
In the main gathering place, which is encircled by seven fiendishly hot "thermotherapy" chambers (collectively called the Poultice Room), visitors can doze on wide mats tossed like rafts on the heated floor. Loaf-shaped "pillows" with a smooth dent in the middle provide head support, though many people simply drape towels over their faces as if they were sunbathing at high noon. The single-sex rooms upstairs provide more privacy and comfort, thanks to thicker mats that can be accessorized with a small blocky cushion and a thin blanket.
"If we want to stay over, we'll stay. If we want to go, we'll head home," said David Kim of Annandale, who set up a proxy bedroom near the Red Clay Room with two computers, a pink neck pillow and a girlfriend. "We come prepared."
Being prepared means packing wisely -- bring entertainment and bedding, skip the bathing suit and pajamas.
In the Bade Bath, a collection of jet-streaming pools of varying temperatures, the dress code in the single-sex pools is birthday suit. Elsewhere on the property, guests must wear the provided togs, a pair of canvas shorts and a scrubs-style top in the hue of a manila envelope. "We weren't sure what to do, either," said a dark-haired woman with a European accent as I stood clueless in the changing room with her and her friend. "We wore our outfits into the pool, and [the attendants] called us back to remove them."
When I asked them whether they planned to sleep over, the one who had recommended the body scrub (additional $50) said, "I think that's going to be the next thing we do." But for tonight, they were homeward bound.
This being a Thursday evening, it wasn't surprising that most visitors left during the night to avoid having to get up early for work. (Weekends, apparently, get busy, with space at a premium.) However, in the common room, no one was leaping up to make it home before Leno. Instead, guests, many of Korean and Russian descent, were splayed in various positions of repose -- flat on their backs or bellies, or curled up like shrimp. Near the snack shop, a woman was slumped on a leather couch, her face hidden behind a pasty white mask.
The spa is full-service, sating the spagoer's every whim and fancy: a restaurant serving Korean food, a fitness center, a gift shop, showers, multiple televisions, magazine racks and more. After watching a bit of the NBA playoffs and flipping through a Korean fashion magazine, I sat down for a meal of hot-and-sour tofu soup accompanied by small plates of kimchi and other vegetables. I then retreated to the Poultice Room to accelerate my metabolism.
Each chamber touts specific salubrious benefits. The Red Clay Room, for example, supposedly removes interior molds and odors, and lowers stress and the risk of cancer. I was feeling good -- so good, in fact, that I wanted to spend the entire night beneath the dome of bubble-gum-colored craters. However, a sign commanded, "Do not sleep in the Poultice Room." Back to the mat.
Outside the hot sanctuary, I settled down beside a mother and daughter whose patch of real estate was covered in celebrity gossip magazines, a Bible and water bottles. I lay supine, squaring my feet with the acupuncturist's bald head. Over my toes and his pate, I could see the cave shape of the Amethyst Gem Room. I closed my eyes and relaxed, imagining that I was a sea lion basking in the sun on a rock. (The room was a toasty 82 degrees.) Warm fur, squirming fish, barking mammals. I needed a dark, quiet cave.
The women's sleeping room was the size of a yoga studio, with only a sliver of light seeping in from the hallway. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I made out a few barely moving lumpy shapes. I placed my portable bed near a small body that I took to be a child's. Before I shut my eyes, the stumpy mound elongated -- a woman unfurling.
I awoke at 4 a.m., thirsty (the heated floor saps you dry) and curious about the happenings in the central parlor. In Kim's corner, the pair was spooning; a man flat on his back was reading a Travel & Leisure magazine; and the acupuncturist's space was vacant. The heated rooms were also empty.
Taking advantage of this solitary moment, I entered the Red Clay Ball Room and sank into a shallow field of heated pebbly shapes. The balls were softer than the main floor, the hut more secluded than the rest of the spa. I knew that I could not fall asleep here, but I could take a nap.